Stephen Fishbach's Survivor Blog: New Castaways Navigate First Alliances, 'Intense Elements' and a Tribal Council Shocker
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“Somebody had to be the first one kicked off, and somebody’s gotta win the million” –Clay Jordan, Survivor: Thailand
Survivor is back with an episode so intense that it could crawl into your brain and live there forever. Kaoh Rong introduces three tribes – Brains, Brawn and Beauty – who are battling for island supremacy in the brutal heat of Cambodia’s dry season.
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has an old-school flavor, especially after last season’s frantic, deconstructed strategy – you’re strong so you’re a threat so you’re not a threat so you’re a threat. It’s fun to watch new players figure out the game – the thrill of building their first alliances, targeting their first enemies, freaking out that they really do have to poop in the water.
As you probably know, Season 32 was filmed before Cambodia, so there’s no talk of voting blocs. On the Brains tribe, the younger players target the older players. Brawn decides between the ditzy blonde and the guy who blew the challenge. This is classic old-school Survivor thinking.
What made this episode feel especially old-school were the intense elements. Some fans have been saying for years that we don’t see enough actual surviving anymore, and crotchety former players shake their sticks on Twitter and insist the kids these days are soft. But even episode one – even before we see the medics running in from the sidelines or urgent choppers descending from the sky – these elements are rough. Aubry has a nervous breakdown from the heat. A tiny insect invades Jennifer’s ear canal.
I loved in particular the little scene where Darnell took an aqua-dump. It’s a reminder that even on Survivor, there is an etiquette to how you do your business. In , we had a marker that indicated how far down the beach to walk from the shelter. Darnell – take a stroll. Nobody wants to swim in your feces.
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The other Old School element is the return of Coach – except this time, the twist is that he’s a woman. Debbie is Coach’s spiritual successor, maybe even more than Phillip. Phillip nailed the feather and the quotes of questionable origin, but Debbie has Coach’s heart. She’s all blustery vulnerability. She’s a fire-making legend until you ask her to actually make a fire. Then she’s offering misinformation from the sidelines.
(Yes, you need that hole in the bamboo.)
Debbie’s erratic nature and Joe’s age – he’s one of the oldest contestants ever – make them easy targets for youngsters Neal, Liz, Peter, and Aubry. It may not seem fair, but Survivor isn’t fair. People become targets for almost any reason.
All seems pretty set, but then Aubry falls apart – even though her lips aren’t chapped! – and Debbie comforts her. Suddenly there’s a connection. Who knows if it will mean anything tomorrow, but it’s a reminder that Survivor changes in an instant.
On Beauty, the girls quickly bond, and the only question is which Beefcake Bro to bring into their coven. There’s blogger bro Nick, who seriously used to blog for Rob Has a Podcast. There’s Big Brother bro Caleb, who has tremendous charisma and a history of building successful alliances.
Then there’s Tai, who may not be a beefcake or a bro, but has to be one of the most likable contestants ever. Tai is the Survivor Lorax. He speaks for the trees. With his spirited attitude and heartrending backstory, how can you root for anybody else?
Then Tai gets caught looking for the idol. Tai – from one idol hunter to another – I feel for you. Keep your head down and wait for someone else to self destruct.
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The obvious misfit on Brawn is the least brawny one, Alecia, who looks like she’s living the daily nightmare of having been cast on the wrong tribe. I have a lot of sympathy for Alecia, who feels like she has a lot to prove but isn’t quite sure how to prove it. She’s constantly justifying herself, but never quite successfully. Her rationale for why she’s brawny is that she went bungee jumping in Bali and posed with three drugged and sedated tigers in Thailand? Alecia, I was in your place not too long ago, standing by the sidelines unsure how to weave a palm frond. It gets better.
Lucky for Alecia, Darnell dramatically screws up the Immunity Challenge, and because this is the jock tribe, that means he has to go. (I’m going to assume there was more going on here – that Darnell wasn’t just booted for one challenge mess-up.) Even then, Alecia almost votes herself out, coyly suggesting that perhaps she has an idol in a way that infuriates Scot.
The Fishy goes to Jason, though it could easily go to Scot. The two of them are the hinges of the Brawn tribe, but Jason seemed to be playing a slightly more aggressive game. I loved his nihilistic attitude towards alliances: “Potentially they could all be truthful in a way.”
I also thought it was interesting that Jason changed his mind at Tribal Council, a truly rare occurrence. Changing your mind at Tribal is dangerous, since it could make your allies worry that you’re wishy-washy, but Jason does give Scott and Jennifer the heads-up. Then, when the vote is a tie, he switches back to the original plan.
You could easily argue that Jason is erratic, but I thought he was being flexible and thinking fast on his feet. With just one episode, it’s impossible to tell.
I’m excited to see more.
Survivor: Kaoh Rong airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.